A chart-driven culture: Seeing more meaning in data

Steve DaumThe visual expression of charts brings numbers to life and offers a way to quickly absorb and make information-based decisions. Find out how you can create a chart-driven culture at your organization that can lead to better understanding of data and the ability to transform it to knowledge.

Numbers have power, as everyone knows. If they stand alone without context, they lose their ability to give information, and thereby have no power. Think of football scores. If they are reported as “14 to 7”; “21 to 28,” or “35-3,” without the context—who played, who won, who lost—they are diminished to numbers without meaning.

Without a visual expression such as that offered by charts, the same can be said of numbers in data sets or even those recorded on check sheets, which at least give the appearance of order and meaning. Consider the following:

Month Units Produced
Jan-2012 1014
Feb-2012 1029
Mar-2012 1009
Apr-2012 1023
May-2012 1017
Jun-2012 1006
Jul-2012 997
Aug-2012 1021
Sep-2012 1011
Oct-2012 1015
Nov-2012 1019
Dec-2012 1022

Data in this form is common to most people working in organizations. During the course of a week they may see reports with tabular data like this many times. It is so common, that one who needs to interpret them creates context by going through a quick, subconscious check while taking in this data:

Are any of the numbers significantly different?
Is there wide variation among the numbers?
Are the numbers increasing or decreasing?
What is the largest number? The smallest number?

Do anything often enough and you will get better; people with accounting and financial backgrounds can whiz through data like this. Some can quickly create meaning by estimating an average from the list, or grasping the range from highest to lowest. Most people, though, have to study data like this in order to make sense of it or apply its meaning to action.

Next, ponder the same data presented in a simple run chart created with CHARTrunner™ Lean SPC software:

Compare how you felt when you saw the list of numbers to how you felt after viewing this chart, and contrast the meaning you found in each case.

I’d bet that most people find the chart to be a more pleasant experience. The chart engages the visual part of the brain to answer all the questions listed above—and possibly more. At a glance, one can see the lowest and highest data points. The distance between the highest and lowest point is immediately clear. The runs of descending and ascending points become obvious after a few seconds. The left to right pattern of the chart aligns with familiar patterns of taking in information.

To perform well in most organizations today, the ability to quickly absorb and act wisely upon data like this is critical. You only have so much mental energy—and time. How much of it do you want to use laboring over the interpretation of lists of data?

Think of a chart as a packet of compressed knowledge, a kind of shorthand. It contains the same information as the data list, but in a form far more efficient to consume, and one that identifies a context: this data point is higher or lower than an earlier one, or this series of low points offers a hint of some recurring condition.

Of course, there’s a caveat with the emphasis on charts. The skill of developing and analyzing charts is not sufficient to assure ongoing success, which must be based on the larger culture of continuous improvement, based on understanding of systems and variation as well as on the management principles developed by W. Edwards Deming. Nonetheless, decision making that is driven by data is an essential part of the formula for this kind of success, and charting is a fundamental way to understand data and transform it into useful information.

Consider creating a chart driven culture in your organization. Develop the habit of looking at and presenting data in chart form. With the software tools available today, creating a chart from a list of numbers is surprisingly easy. Whenever you see the traditional tabular list of data, encourage the presenter to consider using a chart. If you lead by example, over time, more data will be presented in chart form and your colleagues will begin to think more in the language of charts. This will free up mental energy and allow people focus on things like continuing to dazzle your customers.

Here is one last version of the data above. Using SPC software, the additional lines add even more meaning to this cool little packet of knowledge.

Glancing at the chart, one derives real meaning from the data. Numbers that tend to blend together without visual support demand far more work to make sense of them, thereby diminishing efficiency and potentially increasing the chances of missing important messages.

Like who actually won the football pool.

To learn more about how CHARTrunner Lean can help your organization create a chart-driven culture, download a free 30-day software trial or attend a free web demo.